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Supercomputer crunches the numbers

Supercomputer crunches the numbers

I have a bit of a thing for numbers and I have been in numerical heaven these last few days.

First, it seems that Twitter is far from a spent force after announcing that it has added 30 million users in the past two months – that’s almost the population of New Zealand joining every week.

Google is continuing to make truckloads of money, about US$2.2 billion profit from July through to September. But it also continues to spend. In 2010 an acquisition spending spree has so far involved 40 companies for a total of $1.6 billion. That is an average of 4.4 deals a month.

The numbers just keep rolling in.

Smartphones are only used by about 13 per cent of mobile subscribers, but account for almost 65 per cent of mobile traffic worldwide. What’s more, the latest research predicts that this usage will grow 700 per cent in the next five years.

But the number that really got me was 2.5 thousand trillion. In long hand that’s 2500,000,000,000,000. Yep, it is a lot of zeros, enough even to make Google’s eyes water.

It actually refers to the number of calculations the world’s newest and most powerful supercomputer can do in a second. Interestingly, it’s a Chinese device – Tianhe-1A, and has taken over the top spot from America’s XT5 Jaguar at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that can carry out only 1750 trillion calculations per second.

To reach such high speeds Tianhe-1A draws on more than 7000 graphics processors and 14,000 Intel chips. This is all housed in more than 100 fridge-sized cabinets that weigh more than 155 tonnes in total.

But back to 2.5 thousand trillion. This really is a whopper. If you were to count it out, starting at one and saying the next number every second, how long would it take to count up to?

By my calculations, if you counted one number a second – which would be easy to start with but get harder (and unrealistic, try saying 2499,999,999,999,999 – how long did that take?)

The first bit is relatively straightforward. There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day, which means that there are 86,400 seconds in a day, and 604,800 seconds in a week, and 31,557,600 seconds in one year.

In fact, it would take 31 years, 251 days, 7 hours, 46 minutes, and 39 seconds to count to 1 billion – give or take a second or two.

Back to Trinhe-1A. To count the number of calculations this thing can do in a second - 2.5 thousand trillion – would take 77.5 million years. And that would be impossible; man only appeared some 200,000 years ago.

But if time travel were possible, we would have to go back and start counting well before dinosaurs died out – a mere 65 million years ago.


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